As an environmental psychologist working to improve young people’s access to nature, I recently completed a review that brings together two areas of research: one on connecting children and young people to nature, and the second on supporting healthy coping when they realize they are part of a planet in peril.
My review shows that children and young people benefit from living close to nature and having adults in their lives who encourage free play and outdoor exploration. When they feel connected to nature, they are more likely to report good health and a sense of well-being, are more likely to receive high scores for creative thinking, and are more likely to exhibit cooperative, helping behaviors. They are also more likely to say they take action to conserve nature, such as feeding birds, saving energy and recycling.
On the other hand, the lack of access to nature has negative effects. For example, COVID-19 restrictions on travel and social gatherings led more people to visit parks to escape stress and exercise freely. However, some families do not have safe, attractive parks nearby, or their local parks are so heavily used that it is difficult to maintain safe distances. Under these conditions, urban families stuck indoors reported increasing stress and deteriorating behavior in their children.
My research literature also shows that feeling connected to nature can evoke difficult emotions as well as happiness and well-being. When young people are asked about their hopes and fears for the future, many describe the breakdown of the environment. For example, when a graduate student I supervised in Denver asked 50 10- to 11-year-olds what the future would be like, nearly three-fourths shared dystopian views:
“Everything will die out and there will be fewer trees and fewer plants and there will be less nature. It just won’t be such a great earth anymore.”
“I’m sad because the animals will die.”
“I’m sad because by the time I die, I’ll probably have a grandchild or great-grandchild and maybe they or their son or nephew will have to see the end of the world.”
Children who are concerned about the environment are likely to report that they are doing what they can to protect nature, but they almost always report single actions such as cycling to school or saving energy at home. Knowing that climate change and biodiversity loss are bigger problems than they can solve themselves can impact their mental health.
Fortunately, research also highlights some important ways that adults can help children and adolescents process these feelings and maintain hope that they can—in alliance with others—confront environmental issues constructively.
1. Create safe opportunities to share emotions
When family, friends, and teachers listen compassionately and offer support, young people are more likely to have hope that people’s actions can make a difference. Opportunities to envision a promising future, plan ways to get there, and gain hands-on experience working towards that goal also create hope.
2. Encourage outdoor time in nature
Leisure time in nature and opportunities to develop comfort and confidence in nature are positive experiences in themselves; and by increasing well-being, providing time in nature can contribute to young people’s resilience.
3. Build a community with others who care about nature
Meeting other people who love and care for nature makes young people feel more connected and shows them that they are not alone in making the world a better place. Learning about individual actions that help make a difference, or joining together in collective efforts to improve the environment, simultaneously demonstrate a sense of connection with nature and a commitment to caring for it.
4. Strengthen their ideas
It is important to treat young people as partners in solving environmental problems in their families, schools, communities and cities. A boy who was part of a group of kids creating climate action proposals for his Mountain West town summed up the benefits. After pitching their ideas to their city council and getting approval to start a tree planting campaign, he remarked, “There’s something about it…come together, create projects, get to know each other, work together.”
[Deep knowledge, daily. Sign up for The Conversation’s newsletter.]
The research is clear: children and young people need spaces to connect with nature, but it is also important to support them as they struggle with the consequences of feeling part of a currently endangered nature.